One of the most common questions I receive is “what is my coin worth?” Which is then followed by, “why is this coin not worth more?” Both are good questions that cannot be answered in a quick email since price is determined on market value which is heavily influenced by the coin’s condition. Let me explain…
First misconception is that the older the coin, the more it is worth. While some of this is true, there are exception. Copper coin enthusiasts will tell you that the 1910’s Lincoln Cents are worth more on avert than the 1900’s Indian Head Cents, rarities not withstanding. But those rarities are represented of one of the significant drivers in the cost of a coin: supply and demand. Simply, if there is a lower supply for the coin and a high demand, then the prices will be higher. For example, there were only 484,000 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cents struck before the U.S. Mint stopped production of the coins to remove the “V.D.B” initials on the reverse. Although nobody is certain how many have survived, it is difficult to find a collector who does not want one in their collection. Low supply, high demand means high price.
Many of what collectors call “key date” coins are those that are in low supply. But not all of those coins have the same demand. One example is the 1909-S Indian Head Cent with a mintage of 309,000. Even though the supply is lower than the 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent, its demand is not as high. With the lower demand, the average price of the 1909-S Indian Head Cent is lower than the 1909-S VDB. But if you looked at the price of the 1909-S Indian Head Cent at higher grades, the Indian Head Cent is more expensive. This is because the first year Lincoln Cent was save in greater numbers and there are a few more higher grade examples available. Fewer of the 1909-S Indian Head Cents were saved leaving a lower supply making the coin more expensive for those demanding a higher grade coin.
That brings up the second factor of price: the condition of the coin. The better the condition the more expensive the coin. Using the 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent for an example, the “book price” of a brown cent (BN) in the average grade of Extra Fine (XF-40) is $1,300. If it was at the low end of being Uncirculated (MS-60), the coin is worth $1,680. A coin that has some mint red luster that can be classified as red-brown (RB) makes the coin worth $1,720. In higher grades, such as MS-65, the difference between having a 1909-S VDB in BN ($3,060) differs significantly from a RB cent ($4,230) which is less than if it was a full blazing red cent ($6,440).
Condition is a key factor. Even if you were to look up the price of a coin in almost any reference, you will find that the price is different for each grade. It is important that you know the grade of the coin. For U.S. coins, one of the best online resources for helping grade coins is PCGS Photograde Online. PCGS Photograde Online contains high quality images of pre-1964 coins in all grades so that you can compare your coin with the online images. If you have an Apple iPhone or iPad, you can download the app from the iTunes App Store (Photograde app was previously reviewed here).
Even with knowing the condition and rarity of the coin, pricing is more of an art than a science. Publishers of price guides look at market condition, reports of how coins are selling, auctions, and other factors to determine what they think a coin should be worth. Just remember, these guides are just guidelines. They are not definitive prices. Individual dealers set their prices based on how much they purchased the coin for, consignment agreements, what the price guides suggest, along with extra to make a profit. Depending on the dealer, coin, and circumstances, these prices are not firm and can be negotiated. However, if you are negotiating for a coin, you should know what the fair market value is of the coin. Otherwise, you will make the dealer upset and might not sell you the coin regardless of the price.
Negotiating tips will be the topic of another post in the near future.
A good place that I have found to determine what the fair market value is the NumisMedia Fair Market Value Price Guide. NumisMedia allows all web visitors to view the fair market values of the coins in all grades. For those at shows or visiting a coin shop doing quick research on their smartphone, NumisMedia offers a mobile version of their fair market value website at m.numismedia.com.
If you collect foreign coins, there are few, if any, online resources. Since I have an interest in Canadian coins, the best single reference is the Charlton Standard Catalogue, Canadian Coins. Now in its 66th edition, it is the definitive reference on everything minted by the Royal Canadian Mint and those issued by the provinces before the union. One minor drawback is that the images are in black and white. Also, the book is not available as an e-book, which would benefit mobile users.
The ultimate reference guide for world coins is the Standard Catalog of World Coins from Krause Publications. Not only are there volumes for the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st century, but all four volumes are available as PDF files on DVDs. Once the files are copied to your system, they can be downloaded to your e-reader or mobile device for taking on the road. The files are searchable and can help price your world coins. If you do not want the full catalog but want a few countries or regions of interest, Krause offers their “Coins of the World” for downloading. This will allow you to download on the section of the Standard Catalog that you are interested in.
Krause also offers sections of their U.S. Coin Digest for each coin type for download. This is a good service for those interested in just one type. For obsolete bank note collectors, Krause also offers sections of the multi-volume Standard Catalog of United States Obsolete Bank Notes by James A. Haxby as a per state download.
Other references you might consider are Whitman’s A Guide Book of United States Coins, also known as the “Red Book,” and Krause’s U.S. Coin Digest. Both traditional references are available for your favorite e-reader making them easily searchable and portable.
Using these references should help you understand what your coin is worth and why. Now go forth and build your collection!